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What Makes a Great Children’s Book?

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By Razeena Gutta

Richard Robinson, President and CEO of Scholastic Inc., in his keynote address at the inaugural Children’s Publishing Conference 2012 noted that a great book has the following 5 characteristics-

  1. One that contains a simple and original idea presented with clarity and great power.
  2. One that connects with the reader, asserting its world directly into the reader’s mind.
  3. One that makes the world seem larger and more interesting.
  4. One written with humor and a light touch.
  5. One that is a realization of a complete but very different world.

A few years ago we would have found it difficult to find any Islamic book for children that possessed these qualities. Many that may have possessed one or two would have been sorely lacking in other aspects.

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As a lover of books myself, particularly children’s books (I have spent many visits to bookstores and libraries in the kid’s corner, looking for and reminiscing over the books I read as a child), I thought that I would compile and pen down some of the things to look for in a good book. These are qualities that are widely agreed upon as well as those I looked for as a young reader and that I now look for when deciding what to read to my young children.

This is in the hope that Muslim parents will actively seek out the great books available for Muslim kids – there is a changing approach to teaching Islam to young children and these resources can be the first, very captivating introduction to being a Muslim that young children will have.

Emotion

The key to drawing a child into a book is emotion. Whether it is through an emotional attachment with the character or an emotional reaction to the language (think Dr. Seuss), a great book is one in which a child becomes attached to because of its ability to make us laugh, cry or just simply want to care about. A great book is also one in which we can identify with the emotions of the character.

In The Apple Tree by Mariam Al Kalby, Little Shaima, the main character, does not like the idea of sharing her apples. We can all, young and old alike, remember a time when we felt possessive about something special and did not feel the desire to share. The way her father patiently explains and helps her understand the concept of sharing and the reward of charity will draw anyone into this book.

Mind expanding illustrations, vocabulary or concepts

  1. Great illustrations need no explanation. It goes without saying that the most captivating children’s picture books are bright, bold and fun.
  2. Books are also a good tool for parents to introduce new concepts and words. Often children’s book will contain words that may not ideally suit the level of reading, but when intentionally placed and adequately explained, play an important role in language development.
  3. By introducing difficult concepts through books, authors help explain through gently forming ideas around familiar questions and presenting the answers in ways that appeal and resonate with children.

Ilyas and Duck Search for Allah by Omar Khawaja is a book that possesses all three of these qualities. The illustrations are fantastic and very appealing to young minds. Children are introduced to new words such as ‘Alpine Ibex’ and ‘Mandril’, and one of the most difficult concepts to explain – the question of where is Allah? – is investigated and concluded by the adorable characters.

The Story of the Elephant by Hajera Memon is another such example. The artwork is outstanding and the pop-up and tab features really draw the child in to the story and make it easier to relate and teach an otherwise difficult concept to children.

How Big is Allah? By Emma Apple also takes on the task of explaining another difficult concept with great success. Children are able to visualise and put into context their size with that of the planet, galaxy and universe, which allows them to appreciate the sheer greatness of Allah as the creator.

Teaching moments

A great book helps a parent to teach – whether it teaches concepts such as numbers, letters and shapes or whether it teaches values and norms such as acceptance, diversity or manners. Books that can teach without sounding preachy are marvellous resources.

Ilyas and Duck and the Fantastic Festival of Eid al Fitr by Omar Khawaja is a fun book that again, with the use of the two adorable characters, seeks to make Eid fun while also explaining to children the differences between religions and their celebrations.

Circle of Sandcastles by Mariam Al Kalby is another fantastic book by the author. ‘Shy Maimuna’ the main character has to deal with bullies and she goes through many personal realisations before she feels that she can stand up to them. It is a great way of explaining and examining a very difficult concept.

It is the subtlety in teaching that is very important in children’s books. Adults do not like to be preached to, and neither do children.

Fun and adventurous

Books for kids need to be fun and filled with adventure. Whether it is real or imaginary is beside the point, but in order to keep a child interested there must be some thrill. Even subtle experiences such as the characters planting a tree and watching it grow, all the way to the characters traveling to space in makeshift rockets, will keep a child entertained. A sense of adventure and the characters’ enthusiasm will be contagious.

The best of books allow children to explore other worlds and lives. Books that are fantastical and imaginary are wonderful ways to captivate a child’s attention but at the same time they should be somewhat familiar to the children in terms of character, personality or conduct. This way, children will be able to identify closer with the characters and this will create a stronger bond with the book and develop a love of books and reading.

 

Razeena ia an editor with Muslimmatters. While researching about writing a children’s book, she came across many helpful hints and tips. After sourcing and examining the quality of the books that she now sells on www.readlittlemuslims.com, and after reviewing other great books targeted at Muslim children, she sees the trend is definitely changing in the world of Islamic books for kids.

Look out for her book for Muslim kids, coming soon. Faatimah and Ahmed – We’re Little Muslims is the story of two young children who love playing and telling stories. It is Ahmed’s first day at school and he has learned some very interesting things about the time that Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)was born. Faatimah is his younger, very curious sister. Join them as they discover the miracle of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and how important he is to Muslims!

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Freda Shamma

    January 18, 2015 at 12:56 AM

    Assalamu alaikum This is an excellent article. Although I thought I had copies of every book out there containing Muslim characters, you have given me some more books to look for. Please add another part where you talk about books for older children as well. I hope you have not published your new book yet. Please spell Fatima with just one ‘a’ as that is the universal spelling, unless of course you want to call her Fatima with a long ‘a’ as it Fat-e-ma.
    I look forward to getting more of your articles.

  2. Eesa

    January 18, 2015 at 11:05 AM

    Jazakillah khair for the article. Life with the Ahmad Family, more a comic than a “childrens” book is something worth reading. Many lessons that are learnt with each book, while the humor can be appreciated by anyone over ten years (though I may be mistaken, not sure of the general sharpness of children below ten)

  3. Norma Tarazi

    January 27, 2015 at 1:45 PM

    It is important to have a discussion about this topic. Thank you for a good essay. Too many parents buy books ‘blind’, if they buy at all and many books on the market for our kids don’t measure up. Another problem for the author is defining the audience for the book and getting illustrations that seem relevant to those children. Our children are so fragmented into ethnic groups. My grandchildren are American so many books are illustrating a foreign place where Muslims live, not their experience. Also, political correctness should not get in the way of a good story for children. I agree with the earlier comment that spellings should be common ones and not ‘weird’ from the child’s perspective. I also don’t think little girls in storybook drawings should have to wear hijab in bed. I’ve seen this a few times. What kind of message does that send? Avoid the bed scene if necessary but don’t send a message that Muslim girls wear hijab all the time.

  4. Aafia

    October 2, 2016 at 7:53 PM

    I would like to add to it :Ten Most Popular Islamic Books for Kids which we can Buy for Our Kids :
    http://islamhashtag.com/10-best-islamic-books-for-kids/

  5. Zia-e-Taiba

    October 25, 2016 at 8:58 AM

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